Dispute over Stormont Brexit veto threatens to kill off efforts to restore devolution
THE SDLP and Alliance have both rejected a role for the Northern Ireland Assembly in determining a future trading relationship with the EU, as disagreement over the issue threatens to completely scupper the prospects of restoring devolution.
While Westminster's imposition of legislation on abortion and same-sex marriage effectively removes two of the key impediments to striking a deal to re-establish the Stormont institutions, Mary Lou McDonald has said Sinn Féin would block the formation of a new executive if Boris Johnson's withdrawal agreement gave any party a veto.
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said on Monday that the failure to include a "safeguard" in the latest Brexit deal had "serious implications" for his party's support for the restoration of devolution.
The Northern Ireland Protocol published last week alongside the UK-EU withdrawal agreement said the British government would enact legislation providing a "democratic consent mechanism" for the Stormont assembly, enabling Northern Ireland to opt out of regulatory alignment with the single market.
It said an assembly vote based on a simple majority would ensure alignment continues for a further four years but if support is not forthcoming the rules will cease to apply after two years.
The protocol also states that if support is secured for alignment on a cross-community basis, with a weighted majority, then the period of operation would extend to eight years.
The Irish News has repeatedly asked Sir Jeffrey and the DUP to outline their preferred consent mechanism but has received no response to date.
Secretary of State Julian Smith, who is understood to have cancelled planned meetings with Stormont's parties last week as a controversial bid was launched to derail abortion changes in the assembly, told MPs that much of the criticism of Theresa May's deal was "that it needed more say for Northern Ireland".
"It (the issue of consent) will have no impact on the petition of concern or on the day-to-day operation of the assembly. This is an exceptional matter – it is a reserved matter," he said on Monday.
"Consulting the assembly, we will be doing everything we can to ensure that we make that clear."
The Northern Ireland Office was unable to say last night whether the meetings with the Stormont parties had been rescheduled for this week.
"It is ultimately up to those parties to come together, and both the Irish government and the British government stand ready with ideas and thoughts in order to make that happen," Mr Smith told MPs.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said giving Stormont a role in determining a future trading relationship would "inject further uncertainty".
He said it would be "extremely concerning" if one party were given a veto over the relationship with the EU.
"We should remain aligned with the EU customs union and single market, in the best interests of people, businesses and communities here – if parties don’t like that, they shouldn’t have backed Brexit," the Foyle MLA said.
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said his party didn't see the need to give the assembly any role "regarding the existential questions around any special arrangements".
"Any such role is always to be inherently controversial and divisive, adding a further layer of instability to an already fragile situation," he said.
The North Down MLA said maintenance of the integrity of the withdrawal agreement should be a matter for the British government and the EU but there was a potential role for Stormont "in terms of the operational matters around the functioning of any special arrangements".